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High-Risk Drinking in College: What We Know and What We Need To Learn

Issues For College Administrators

College presidents nationwide view excessive drinking as their number one campus-life problem. They know that student alcohol misuse harms those students who drink to excess, negatively affects students who do not drink or drink responsibly, and damages the larger institution. Although more research is needed, findings from a number of well-designed studies offer information and suggested strategies useful for college and university administrators interested in reducing excessive drinking on campus and its consequences (Murphy, 2000).

Issues Related to Federal, State, and Local Laws

Federal, State, and local laws help define college administrators’ responsibilities for taking action when students misuse alcohol. The Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act and its 1989 amendments require institutions receiving any Federal funds to (DeJong and Langenbahn, 1995):

  • Implement an alcohol and drug education program;
  • Define a policy that prohibits the unlawful possession, use, and distribution of alcohol and other drugs;
  • Share information about alcohol and drug treatment programs available to students and employees;
  • Adopt disciplinary sanctions for students and employees who violate the school’s policy on alcohol and drugs; and
  • Ensure that the disciplinary sanctions are consistently enforced.

The amendments to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act now permit schools to disclose to parents any violations of local, State, and Federal laws and school policies and rules related to alcohol. Massachusetts now requires and Virginia now recommends that public institutions in those States do so.

Issues Related to Policy Development

In addition to complying with the law, each college has an obligation to define and adopt an institutional policy on alcohol that is consistent with its own culture, values, mission, and population. Because institutions are so diverse, no single policy on alcohol is appropriate for the 3,000-plus U.S. institutions of higher learning (Gulland, 1994). An institution’s history, demographics, philosophy, and mission should guide the policy development process.

Numerous publications are available to help administrators review and create alcohol policies (DeJong and Langenbahn, 1995; Gulland, 1994; Pittayathikhun et al., 1997). Among the many issues to be considered are the following:

  • Is the desired outcome a complete ban on the presence of all alcohol among undergraduate students, or is the focus on responsible behavior and mitigation of serious offenses?
  • Will the focus be restricted to alcohol-misusing students only, or will it include those adversely affected by students who drink excessively?
  • What data will be gathered and how will the data be gathered?
  • How will the institution measure compliance with the policy and evaluate progress in achieving goals?

A school must also be aware of the legal aspects of any policy it institutes. To balance students’ individual rights against institutional liability, some lawyers recommend the following (Gulland, 1994):

  • Adopt only rules and sanctions that the school is willing and able to enforce.
  • Enforce the policy consistently while respecting students’ rights to fair hearing procedures.
  • Emphasize education, both as a general means of informing students about the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and as a response to violations of the school’s policy.
  • Focus on circumstances that present the greatest danger and risk of liabilitysuch as situations in which the school is involved in selling alcoholic beverages or acting as a social hostand recurring patterns of alcohol misuse during particular events or by repeat offenders.

Companies that provide liability insurance to colleges and universities have also made specific suggestions (United Educators Insurance Risk Retention Group, Inc., 1993). They include:

  • Draft policies that encourage responsible behavior, but avoid policies that seek to prevent specific types of harm or prescribe narrow types of behavior with alcohol.
  • Do not sell alcohol unless the institution is prepared to handle the responsibilities imposed by social host or dram shop laws.
  • Educate groups that host parties—fraternities, residence halls, alumni—about their “host liability” for serving alcohol to underage drinkers and ways to detect overconsumption.
  • Offer programs for students on the dangers of drinking and driving.
  • Address known violations of institutional policies immediately and impose discipline consistently and firmly.

Issues Related to Policy Enforcement

Once an institution has defined and adopted its alcohol policy, it should consider policy enforcement and the execution of educational and other programs related to it. Depending on an institution’s policy, administrators may need to focus on specific aspects of campus life; some of these are discussed below.

Residence hall life.There are many complex issues regarding residence hall life that should be considered by administrators instituting and enforcing an alcohol policy. They include the following:

  • At what point is a student’s right of privacy violated because of concerns about alcohol misuse?
  • Does a college face legal liability if it designates a residence hall substance-free when virtually all of the institution’s students are under the legal age for drinking?
  • What message does the “substance-free” label on one residence hall send about the others? The label may be less “loaded” if it includes tobacco products as well as alcohol and drugs.
  • If no residence hall is designated substance-free, how is the institution prepared to respond to the residential requirements of students who are in recovery from alcohol dependence and whose needs are protected by the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act?
  • What is the college’s policy on a “good Samaritan” rule? In a reversal of the actions of the biblical “good Samaritan,” some students refuse to seek help for a student in trouble as a result of alcohol misuse for fear of punishment. A campus good Samaritan rule balances these student concerns against the law and the need to obtain help for other students when they are in serious, even life-threatening situations.

Fraternities and sororities.Because of the association between membership in a fraternity or sorority and alcohol consumption, it is clear that college administrators need to work with leaders in the Greek system when defining alcohol policy and the mechanisms for enforcing it. A balance needs to be struck between respect for the fundamental principles of self-governance that define Greek life and the recognition that fraternities and sororities are part of the larger university environment and campus culture. College administrators should work with local chapter members to ensure that Greek alcohol use and misuse policies are consistent with those of the particular institution.

Currently, national fraternity and sorority systems set their own policies on alcohol misuse. Recently, many fraternities have banned the presence of alcohol in the fraternity house (Boston, 1998; Budoff, 1998; Burke, 1999; Williams, 1996), and seven members of the National Panhellenic Conference have voted to restrict their sororities’ social commitments in fraternity houses to those chapters that offer only alcohol-free events in their houses.

An analysis of the role of alcohol in fraternities prompted the following recommendations to members of the Greek system and campus administrators (Arnold and Kuh, 1992):

  • Conduct cultural audits of local chapters using insiders and outsiders.
  • Adopt culture-change strategies and tactics.
  • Hold members of the local chapter responsible for bringing about cultural change.
  • Defer rush until the end of freshman year or the beginning of sophomore year so college students experience a broad exposure to campus culture before they choose to become members of the Greek system.
  • Increase efforts to recruit members from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, groups that tend to drink less.
  • Select live-in advisors committed to the institutional mission and cultural change.
  • Eliminate organizations with harmful cultural and lifestyle patterns that are unwilling or unable to change.

The role of athletics. College athletics can contribute to alcohol problems for the campus and the surrounding community in a number of ways (Ryan, 1999). Weekly alcohol consumption and binge drinking go up as a student progresses from noninvolvement in collegiate or recreational athletics to participation on a team and a leadership position. At many institutions, alcohol is intimately associated with athletics. The alcohol industry may provide financial support for big-time athletic programs and related large-scale campus events; alcohol may be available in college sports arenas; and new college stadiums may include luxury boxes for alumni and other supporters where alcohol is served.

The following recommendations emerged from a 1999 symposium on collegiate athletics and alcohol sponsored by The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention (Ryan, 1999):

  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association should reassess its policies for accepting alcohol advertising and event sponsorship.
  • Colleges should enforce consistent alcohol control measures for public events (e.g., pregame tailgating and in-stadium alcohol availability) to avoid double standards for alumni and students.
  • Colleges should engage their surrounding communities in collaborative efforts to prevent alcohol misuse associated with athletic events.
  • Colleges should reduce risks posed by postgame celebration (for wins) and consolation (for losses) occasions by hosting social gatherings that do not involve alcohol.
  • Colleges should examine the pros and cons of accepting financial support from the alcohol industry.

Alumni events and fundraising. Alumni events represent a particularly challenging area for college administrators. While virtually all alumni are of legal age to drink, the extent to which they misuse alcohol when they return to campus can have serious consequences for the college or university. Students are quick to note double standards and hypocrisy and readily pick up on the fact that excessive drinking by alumni is tolerated while alcohol misuse by students is not. When the president of the University of Rhode Island changed the institution’s policy to ban alcohol from all campus functions, some of the most vocal resistance (besides fraternities) came from the development office staffers and deans, who were worried that the lack of alcohol could adversely impact fundraising and development activities (Schroeder, 1999). In fact, the president reported little or no resistance from alumni and no negative impact on development (Mara, 2000). Nevertheless, the extent to which there could be negative effects on development from changes in alcohol policies is an issue meriting further study.

Another difficult question is whether to accept gifts or sponsorships from the alcohol industry (Ryan, 1999). President Edward H. Hammond of Fort Hays State University is among those who believe the alcohol industry should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. He said, “Every time a legal product is abused in our society, we demand the producers of the product take ownership and be a part of the solution” (Ryan, 1999). He cited the automobile industry and chemical companies as examples.

For institutions that have hospitality programs or food-related curricula, or alumni who have entered the alcohol industry after graduation, the two issuesalumni giving and industry supportcome together. The college or university must be clear in articulating its position, especially about alcohol advertising on campus, accepting gifts, and allowing support from the industry. It is possible to prohibit the direct advertisement of alcohol or official sponsorship of an event by the alcohol industry and still accept gifts from manufacturers or retailers of beer, wine, and liquor products.

Taking Concrete Action To Change the Culture of Drinking on Campus

Research indicates that the most successful strategies for changing student drinking behavior are likely to be multidimensional (Final Report of the Panel on Prevention and Treatment). Such strategies should take into account existing laws, an institution’s own alcohol policy, and the people likely to be affected by enforcement of that policy. Although additional research is needed to answer important questions about many aspects of excessive student drinking, a number of colleges and universities are using a combination of strategies to begin changing the culture of drinking on campus. Those strategies include involving stakeholders, offering a range of substance-free social programs, conducting communications campaigns, managing special events, and building campus-community coalitions. College administrators may find elements of each useful in planning their campus alcohol programs.

Involving stakeholders. Most effective programs involve stakeholders—a group that at a minimum includes students, the school president, and faculty—as a first step in developing a campuswide approach to reducing excessive student drinking.

  • Students. The key stakeholder in changing a college culture of alcohol misuse is the student. Students have the opportunity—and perhaps the obligation—to be advisers and advocates in bringing about healthy cultural change. The most successful change is likely to occur when it is student-driven and supported by the administration. Students can hold themselves accountable for the campus alcohol policy; monitor their own behavior in a way that exercises self-governance and accepts responsibility; communicate information on the topic through campus newspapers; and initiate social programming that does not include alcohol, especially in the critical and influential first month of school (Gomberg, 1999; Gulland, 1994; Upcraft, 2000).
  • College presidents. The college president is another important stakeholder in reducing campus alcohol misuse. The role of the chief executive has been delineated by the Presidents Leadership Group (1997), which encourages presidents to adhere to the “three Vs”: be vocal, be visible, and be visionary. The group offers the following specific recommendations for college presidents (DeJong, 1998; Presidents Leadership Group, 1997):

    • Work to ensure that school officials routinely collect data on the extent of alcohol misuse and make this information available when appropriate.
    • Frame discussions about alcohol in a context so that other senior administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and trustees will understand clearly that excessive drinking interferes with the pursuit of academic excellence that drives the institution.
    • Define alcohol not as a problem of the campus alone, but of the entire community, one that will require community-level action to solve.
    • Use every opportunity to speak out and write about alcohol and other drug misuse to reinforce prevention as a priority concern and to push for constructive change.
    • Work to ensure that all elements of the college community avoid providing “mixed messages” that might inadvertently encourage alcohol and other drug use.
    • Demonstrate commitment to alcohol and other drug abuse prevention by budgeting sufficient resources to address the problem.
    • Appoint a campuswide task force that includes other senior administrators, faculty, and students; has community representation; and reports directly to the president.
    • Appoint other senior administrators, faculty, and students to participate in a campus-community coalition that is mandated to address alcohol and other drug use issues in the community as a whole.
    • Lead a broad exploration of the institution’s infrastructure and the basic premises of its educational program to see how they affect alcohol and other drug use.
    • Offer new initiatives to help students become better integrated into the intellectual life of the school, change student norms away from alcohol and other drug use, and make it easier to identify students in trouble with alcohol and substance use.
    • Take the lead in identifying ways to promote economic development in the community, since a community with a broad economic base will be less reliant on selling alcohol to college students to produce revenue.
    • Be involved, as private citizens, in policy change at the State and local level, working for new laws and regulations that will affect the community as a whole.
    • Participate in State, regional, and national associations to build support for appropriate changes in public policy.
  • Faculty. A survey conducted by the Core Institute showed that more than 90 percent of faculty and staff are concerned about the impact of students’ alcohol and other drug use (cited in DeJong, 1998). Faculty can play a vital role in effecting change by:
    • Ensuring that classes are held Monday through Friday, not Monday through Thursday; when the academic week is short, it can encourage the early start of a long weekend devoted to partying.
    • Infusing the curricula with information on alcohol misuse, when appropriate, to engage students in this issue (Ryan and DeJong, 1998).

Ensuring adequate staffing. A coalition of staff is needed to effectively reduce alcohol misuse on campus. Coalition members need to be able to link with health professionals, campus police, judicial staff, and students to connect students with alcohol problems to appropriate interventions. Coalition leadership should have direct access to the college president. If institutional change is to occur, it cannot be led by a staff person buried deep in the organizational bureaucracy of the college or university.

Offering social programming. The type and amount of social programming play a significant role in students’ use and misuse of alcohol. One of the most controversial issues is whether to have a campus pub. Although an on-campus pub offers opportunities for oversight, it may also be a liability because the college is acting as a host in the provision of alcoholic beverages (Gulland, 1994). The college should be sure it offers student-friendly social activities throughout the week that do not involve alcohol; many college students appear to be seeking a high-energy, social and recreational program that follows their biological clock, not that of the overseeing staff. The University of West Virginia and the University of North Carolina are among the institutions that have been successful in offering all-night activities that meet students’ desires. Key to the success of this type of nonalcohol social programming is the role that students themselves play in taking the lead by planning and sponsoring such events (Schroeder, 1999).

Conducting communication campaigns. Colleges and universities are engaging in communication campaigns to reduce excessive drinking. Some institutions focus on the consequences of alcohol misuse to the users themselves, while others try to motivate change by empowering those affected by secondhand effects. Although traditional efforts offer information about alcohol use, including the devastating and dangerous effects of alcohol misuse (death, serious injury, rape), newer campaigns feature the social norms approach, which emphasizes the more moderate behavior that is typical of the student population at large, rather than worst-case examples. (More detailed descriptions of informational and social norms approaches are provided in the Panel 2 report.) A communication campaign can be based not just on individual intervention strategies but also on strategies at the social system level, which includes institutional, community, and public policy levels. At the core of the social systems approach is the belief that people make decisions about alcohol use based on the physical, social, economic, and legal environment, not just on personal needs (DeJong, 1998).

Managing special events. Highly populated special events such as football tailgating, homecoming, special weekends, and senior celebrations are often marked by excessive drinking. The “just say no” approach—simply mandating that such events cannot occur—does not work and can have disastrous results (Cohen, 1997; Zimmerman, 1999). A more helpful approach is to involve students in planning these events from the beginning, sharing with them the need to prevent harmful consequences that can occur from alcohol misuse. Although these honest, open discussions can make admissions officers, public relations personnel, and college legal staff nervous, without an honest assessment of the damage that can result from such gatherings and a genuine commitment to change, nothing constructive will happen and entrenched behavioral patterns will continue.

Building coalitions. Building campus-community coalitions involves a need to be honest and open. To form an effective coalition, college officials need to talk honestly about unmonitored serving in the local bars where identification is not required, the impact of advertising low-priced drink specials, and the overall campus drinking problem. Such honesty can expose the college to potential litigation or “bad press,” but without such candor, the attention of community leaders and their help and cooperation are almost impossible to obtain. Such coalitions can be powerful forces for change. In one experiment, two communities in California and one in South Carolina organized citizen-led programs for more effective control of alcohol sales. In contrast to the comparison sites, participating communities cut alcohol sales to minors in half and reduced single-vehicle accidents by 10 percent (DeJong, 1997; Holder et al., 2000). Although the risk of public exposure of problem student-drinking behavior exists, taking a stand and reaching out to work with the community can have a highly positive outcome (Schroeder, 1999).

Strategies for Filling Gaps in Knowledge: Alcohol-Reduction Efforts

College administrators need to develop, use, and continually evaluate research related to their own campus and community. This will enhance knowledge about the effectiveness of program interventions and the differential vulnerability of specific populations on campus. In addition, it is important to monitor the image of the college that is being presented through its materials, student academic performance, and campus incidents related to alcohol use and misuse. The college should also attempt to determine the various costs related to alcohol misuse by students on campus. Although very little research is available in this area, some guidance may be available from recent national studies (Levy et al., 1999; Wechsler et al., 2000c). Focus group research can augment understanding of trends identified in surveys of campus populations. Ongoing program evaluations within the institution are crucial to assess the success and impact of any interventions that are developed and initiated by college administrators to reduce alcohol misuse on campus. To design a program once and assume it will continue to be useful, effective, and relevant for years to come is unrealistic.

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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005


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